Political news

Budget statement expected as DUP warn that Stormont unlikely to return this year

Simon Hamilton told MPs that he did not expect an agreement between his party and Sinn Féin to materialise in 2018

ONE of the DUP's talks team has said power-sharing is unlikely to return before next year at the earliest.

Former minister Simon Hamilton told MPs on Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that a "scorched earth" policy by Sinn Féin had poisoned relations between Stormont's two biggest parties.

The MLA's remarks came ahead of an expected statement on a regional budget today by Secretary of State Karen Bradley.

The Tory MP is also to address the issue of assembly members' pay, which looks likely to be cut by £14,000 to around £35,500, in line with a recommendation in a report in December by former assembly chief executive Trevor Rainey.

The accompanying legislation is expected to be laid before Westminster over the coming days and passed ahead of MPs and peers beginning their Easter recess on March 29.

The British government is resisting calls for direct rule and for the meantime is keeping its role in governing the north to a minimum.

However, with the DUP now claiming that the Stormont executive is unlikely to be restored in the foreseeable future, London is expected to come under increased pressure to extend its role.

Mr Hamilton told MPs yesterday he believed "the prospects of a return to devolution in the short-term are bleak".

The Strangford MLA said his assessment "gives me no pleasure".

"I don't see it happening this year and perhaps even beyond," he said.

DUP leader Arlene Foster collapsed the latest round of negotiations on February 14.

In the weeks since, the party has been grilled about what its negotiating team was prepared to sign up to.

It has denied Sinn Féin claims it had struck a draft agreement before reneging in the face of a grassroots backlash over an Irish language act.

Mr Hamilton claimed media reports suggesting that a draft deal had been done, and that DUP leader Arlene Foster handed over a hard copy to Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill, were the result of "mischief making" and "selective leaking" by republicans.

He defended the leadership of Mrs Foster and said she had headed up the negotiations at all stages of the process.

Mr Hamilton claimed factors preventing a restoration of devolution included Sinn Féin "intransigence" and the party's continued "eulogising" of the IRA.

"Their behaviour in recent days and their behaviour in recent weeks suggest to me that they are not serious about getting devolution back," he said.

However, Sinn Féin negotiator Conor Murphy claimed Mr Hamilton's remarks showed the DUP had "checked out of the power-sharing institutions or any renewed effort to restore them".

"This follows their decision to renege on the draft agreement and to crash the talks process in the face of opposition from their own most right-wing, anti-agreement elements," he said.

"But our public services and the rights of citizens cannot be held to ransom by the DUP's refusal to close on an agreement which they negotiated over 14 months."

Mr Murphy called on the Irish and British governments to convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference "to implement previous agreements", including a commitment to an Irish language act and the release of funds for legacy inquests.

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